The 671st Army Engineers dedicate the completion of their first ribbon bridge construction in Iraq
In memory of fallen comrade Brandon Tobler,
who was the first Oregon military person to die in Operation Iraq Freedom.
The history of the 671st Engineer Co. traces back to July 1921 when its predecessor was first organized as the 594th Motor Transport Co. During World War II, it served with distinction in the China-Burma-India Theater as the 3730th Quartermaster Truck Company. In 1944, the company twice received Army Meritorious Unit Commendations. Another unit designated as the 671st Engineer Topographical Co. also served in the Pacific Theater during World War II and served in the occupation forces in Japan before inactivation in mid-1946.
After a period of post war life as the 308th Transportation Truck Co. and inactivation, the unit was reactivated in the Organized Reserves on 10 May 1951 in Eugene, Oregon and affiliated with the Oregon Motor Transportation Association. Inactivation then occurred on 18 August 1952.
The unit was redesignated on 5 November 1962 at Portland, Oregon as the 308th Transportation Co. (Terminal Service) as an element of the Sixth US Army and was activated on 1 March 1963. Its mission was to provide stevedoring and beachhead-clearing manpower to move cargo from docked ships or amphibious landing craft. Most of its annual periods of active duty for training were spent at Rio Vista, California or Fort Flagler on Indian Island in Washington state where World War II-era facilities existed for docking training cargo vessels.
The training consisted of working cargo-handling gear on the training ships and using the unit’s engineer heavy equipment (cranes, forklifts, bulldozers and dump trucks) to move earth and mock cargo.
In the mid-1970s, the US Army adopted the “Round Out” concept to more closely integrate Reserve components into the total army strength and the 308th Transportation Co. was selected to be reorganized as Echo Company, 65th Engineer Battalion of the fabled 25th “Tropic Lightning” Infantry Division based in Hawaii. The 25th and the 65th Engineers had won many honors during service in the Southwest Pacific and Philippines Campaigns during WW II, in the Korean War and in Vietnam. Echo Company was issued ribbon (floating pontoon) bridging equipment and began training in its new mission. This namesake unit had spent almost three years near Cu Chi in South Vietnam during that war.
In becoming E Company, the unit had the distinction of being the first element of the 25th Infantry Division ever to fly the division’s colors in the continental United States.
As E Company, it received the Army’s Superior Unit Award in 1978 in recognition of its excellent training, administration and maintenance programs.
Reorganization to its present designation as the 671st Engineer Co. occurred on 16 September 1989, but its mobile ribbon bridge equipment and mission stayed the same. Most of its training was done at Fort Lewis, Washington and Yakima Firing Center in Washington.
In November 2002, the unit received a mobilization warning order and several members of the unit were called to active duty to begin the mobilization processing. In January 2003, the call came and the entire unit was mobilized. Empty slots in the unit were filled by Reservists from another engineer battalion with units in Spokane, Boise and Ogden, Utah.
The unit departed Portland in mid-January for deployment processing in Fort Leonard Wood Missouri and after a short stay there, arrived next in Kuwait on 14 February 2003. There it was temporarily assigned to the Army’s Fifth Corps and began training for future operations. Training was conducted in individual soldier skills, equipment maintenance, convoy operations and vehicle recovery operations.
On 18 February, the 671st officially adopted the call sign Otter for radio communications, in honor of its river oriented mission.
The unit moved north to a location near the border of Iraq in a night convoy on 10 March 2003 and was assigned as a part of the 10th Engineer Battalion of the 3rd Infantry Division. More intensive combat training followed until the 18th when they moved to their attack position at the border.
On 21 March, at approximately 1:30 PM, the Otters of the 671st began convoying toward Iraq in what would be a 56-hour trip with short stops only for fuel. Long stretches of this trip would be on unpaved roads in blackout light and in near zero visibility sandstorms. During this run, the 671st suffered its only fatality of the war when Specialist Brandon Tobler of Portland was killed in a truck crash during blackout driving conditions. The truck driver, Specialist Heidi Dennis, was seriously injured in the crash.
At some time during the road march north into Iraq with assault elements of the 3rd Infantry Division, the 671st was tasked to the 54th Engineer Battalion to assist another ribbon bridge company, the 299th Engineers, in constructing an assault bridge across the Euphrates River on 3 April. The 671st assisted with riverbank preparation and used its bulldozer to dig three Abrams tanks and two tank retrievers out of sand in which they were mired. This was the first American assault bridge crossing since early in the Vietnam War.
The next mission was all 671st. On 8 April, the unit convoyed to another crossing site on the Euphrates. Extensive bank preparation at both the crossing and boat launch sites was necessary. At approximately 10:00 PM the first boat of the 671st was dropped into the Euphrates and the Otters worked through the night to complete the bridge. By 8:00 AM on 10 April, the bridge was open to limited traffic. The next day, the ingenious engineers of the 671st constructed a corduroy road surface leading to the crossing site using salvaged materials from a bridge blown up by the retreating Iraqi Army and the bridge was available for unlimited traffic, including the 60-ton tanks and heavy fuel tanker trucks of the rapidly advancing 3rd Division.
The bridge was dedicated by the soldiers of the 671st to the memory of their fallen comrade, Brandon Tobler.
On 15 April, construction began at the same site on a floating footbridge for use by local Iraqi villagers and herdsmen. The same day, the 671st was reassigned once again for command and control, this time to the 565th Engineer Battalion. Construction was completed on 2 May. The 671st then received orders on 7 May to remove their ribbon bridge from the river and head north again.
On 23 April, the 671st was reorganized again under the 937th Engineer Group, a Utah-based Army Reserve command and reached a new assembly area on 27 April. After 28 consecutive days of living in the field, the Otters finally had a building to call “home” but it had no sanitary facilities. After another 14 days of scrounging material, they rigged their first shower—one head for nearly 200 troops—and started a series of missions from their new base. They drove trucks in convoys, did construction work for a variety of nearby units, hauled and sorted mail, and conducted combat boat patrols on the Tigris River for the 3rd Infantry Division.
The Department of the Army recognized the “extreme heroism and bravery” of the 671st on 10 September 2003 when the actions listed above from 19 March 2003 to 1 May 2003 resulted in the award of a Presidential Unit Citation, the nation’s highest award for unit bravery in the face of an enemy.
Yet another command change occurred on 15 June, when the 671st was assigned to the 16th Engineer Battalion of the 1st Armored Division during Operation Desert Scorpion Sting. They continued to provide boats and personnel for combat patrols along the Tigris River, searching for enemy soldiers and weapons caches.
They also built bridges again, helping to install a bridge being repaired by the 16th Engineers in June. In September, they lead C Company of the 16th Engineers in bridging a large canal near the city of Taji.
Starting on 18 November, the 671st and C Company again joined forces to rebuild the Al-Muthana Bridge in north Baghdad. This is the northernmost bridge in Baghdad and supports heavy industrial traffic. The engineers used a British-designed structure, the Mabey-Johnson Bridge, that is similar to the World War II Bailey bridge.
With this project complete, but with convoy support missions continuing, the 671st stayed with the 1st Armored into January 2004 when they were deployed back to Kuwait to prepare for movement back to the United States.
Finally, the 671st arrived at Fort Lewis Washington on Sunday 15 February and were demobilized in Portland on 22 February.